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Petraeus: Progress in Afghanistan, but Tough Times Ahead

The U.S. Army General who President Barack Obama wants to send to lead American and coalition forces in Afghanistan told members of the Senate on Tuesday that there are already signs of success from the new strategy and troop surge the president announced in December. General David Petraeus told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the effort to establish security and develop Afghanistan's government and security forces will continue to be difficult, but he said he believes it can succeed.

General Petraeus appeared irritated with some senators and other observers who see slower-than-expected progress in southern Afghanistan, and rising allied and Afghan military casualties, as indications the new strategy is failing. He noted that the president only announced the new approach in December and that all of the additional U.S. and allied forces have not yet arrived.

"My sense is that the tough fighting will continue," said Petraeus. "Indeed, it may get more intense in the next few months. As we take away the enemy's safe havens and reduce the enemy's freedom of action, the insurgents will fight back. In the face of the tough fighting, however, we must remember that progress is possible in Afghanistan because we have already seen a fair amount of it in a variety of different forms beyond the recent security gains."

Petraeus cited increases in the number of children attending schools, the number of markets doing business and the number of roads repaired and built to facilitate commerce. He indicated he will continue to pursue the implementation plan developed by his predecessor, Army General Stanley McChrystal, whose resignation President Obama accepted last week following the publication of derisive comments by the general and members of his staff.

As McChrystal's immediate superior, General Petraeus participated in developing the campaign plan and approved it. The plan calls for securing more parts of the country, starting with key areas in the South, developing the Afghan security forces and promoting reconciliation and economic development.

"Focusing on securing the people does not, however, mean that we don't go after the enemy," he added. "In fact, protecting the population inevitably requires killing, capturing or turning the insurgents."

Petraeus welcomed the reintegration plan announced by Afghan President Hamid Karzai Tuesday, but he said many Taliban fighters will not be interested in laying down their arms and reconciling with the Afghan government unless the coalition and Afghan forces put military pressure on them. Petraeus said he may make small changes in the campaign plan, as any commander would, but that the overall thrust will not change.

Specifically, he said he will continue the emphasis on protecting Afghan civilians, including rules for coalition troops that limit their ability to use lethal force. But the general also indicated he is sensitive to complaints from some troops that the rules go too far, and put them in too much danger.

"I see it as a moral imperative to bring all assets to bear to protect our men and women in uniform and the Afghan security forces with whom ISAF [i.e., International Security Assistance Force] troopers are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder. Those on the ground must have all the support they need when they are in a tough situation," he explained.

General Petraeus said he has discussed that with President Karzai and other senior Afghan officials, and that they agree the troops must be able to protect themselves and understand that there inevitably will be some civilian casualties.

The general also defended President Obama's July 2011 deadline for beginning the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the transition to full Afghan government control. He said the deadline creates a constructive sense of urgency among all parties involved. But Petraeus emphasized that the pace of the withdrawal will be determined by the situation on the ground, and that U.S. forces and civilians will maintain a long-term commitment to Afghanistan.

"The commitment to Afghanistan is necessarily, therefore, an enduring one," he noted. "And neither the Taliban nor Afghan and Pakistani partners should doubt that."

Although some senators expressed concerns about the deadline and other aspects of the president's strategy, none had any criticism for General Petraeus, who is widely credited with engineering the turnaround in Iraq as the allied commander there in 2007 and 2008. The senate is expected to confirm the general's nomination by the end of the week, and he could be in Kabul to assume his new command by early next week.